All living systems go through predictable life cycles.
- Formation (adolescence)
Healthy systems work to avoid decline and death by using the calm of maturity to plan a rebirth. That seems counter-intuitive, to be planning the new even as the current has abundant signs of life, and it often frustrates people who are finally getting to enjoy the fruits of maturity. Nevertheless, failure to anticipate the future will guarantee even greater frustration and conflict during decline, all at a time of reduced financial vitality.
Unhealthy systems avoid change as long as possible, often until death is staring them in the face. They use the decline stage to blame persons or groups for causing the decline, thereby hurting trust and community. They squander limited resources in trying to stave off death. They avoid critical self-examination and therefore enter into reduce efforts with little knowledge of context or opportunity. They just want the pain of dying to stop.
Assessing a system's current life-cycle stage isn't easy. It depends on metrics (quantitative measures), more than on feelings of satisfaction or absence of conflict. It requires more candor about vitality and momentum than custodians of present activities are likely to welcome.
Leaders need to step back from a role they often take, namely, being agents for church members in promoting members' immediate interests. Their other role is to be custodians of the system, like parents or a board of directors, anticipating the future even as others enjoy the present.
If decline has begun and the air is filled with blaming and frustration, leaders need to become analytical and calm, not partisans for one source of blaming or another.
Some members, and leaders, will use decline or death to pursue a personal agenda -- like getting rid of the pastor, stopping a certain ministry, or reining in mission -- even though that agenda has nothing to do with causes of decline or the pathway to renewed health. In a healthy system, key leaders will resist being sucked into such agendas.
As with the development of a human person, each life-cycle stage requires certain leadership activities.
During birth or rebirth, leaders need to
- encourage risk-taking (like learning to walk)
- protect new ideas and new constituencies from attack (by change -resisters, for example)
- provide appropriate "discipline" to those whose enthusiasm blinds them to outcomes or to their impact on the overall system.
- move from hand-holding to giving wings, as new ideas, new ministries and new constituencies are "pushed from the nest" to fly on their own.
During formation, leaders need to
- exercise patience as groups and persons want more autonomy than they are prepared to handle
- work as a unit (like united parents) to give a consistent message and to maintain a focus on the overall system
- encourage risk-taking and learning from failure
- invest in change
- protect risk-takers from attack by opponents sensing an opportunity to pounce
During maturity, leaders need to
- start the process of self-examination and needs analysis that will lead to strategies for averting decline and death
- keep the system open
- as "settlers" enjoy the moment, encourage "pioneers" to keep imagining
- set aside resources for strategies leading to rebirth (e.g. adding space, adding staff, developing a new-ministries fund)
If decline cannot be averted, leaders need to
- use decline as a time to reassess long-term objectives
- use decline to contemplate options for revitalization (rebirth)
- estimate costs (financial, human) of revitalization
- do a sober assessment of whether such costs can be handled
- if so, how will resources be assembled and deployed?
- if not, how will leaders prepare for a gracious death?
- This is extraordinarily hard work, requiring discernment and oneness in leadership ranks at precisely the time when leaders feel pulled in opposite directions, both by their own interests and by the tug of parishioners.
- To do this work effectively, leaders will need to stand apart from the membership, not to isolate themselves from conflicting pressures, but to gain perspective that rises above emotions.
- Even as members look for whom to blame (often targeting the clergy), leaders will need to work in partnership with the clergy and understand that a congregation's decline usually has roots that precede current lay or clergy leaders.
If death is the end, then leaders need to
- be bold and faithful in facing death
- make generous disposition of assets, in partnership with judicatory and community
- remind members that, as Christians, we don't fear death
- remind members that all institutions eventually outlive their original charter and either change radically or die
- declare that a gracious death can be a sign of God's love
- believe that, in God's realm, the death of a specific institution won't be the end of God's concern for its members or its context. Something new and good will be born.
- remind members that death is a sign of life, not of failure.